Using Our Freedom in Accordance with Its Purpose, 13th Sunday (C), June 26, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Michael’s Parish, Lowell, MA
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
17th Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination
June 26, 2016
1 Kings 19:16,19-21, Ps 16, Gal 5:1.13-18, Lk 9:51-62

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided today’s homily: 

The Purpose of our Freedom

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.” These words from today’s second reading from St. Paul to the Galatians allow us to focus on one of life’s most important questions and receive God’s help to answer it: What is the purpose of our freedom? What is the relationship between freedom and law, especially my freedom and God’s holy law? How do I grow in freedom and how do lose freedom? These are questions that are good for us to ponder not only as we prepare for Independence Day in just over a week, not just as we ponder what just happened in Great Britain in its exit from the European Union in what the victorious sign called a “liberation,” but as we look at many of the big questions that are facing us as Christians, as citizens, family members, parishioners and more.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.” All that the Lord Jesus has done for us was to set us free, free from the power of sin and from the death to which sin leads. But that liberation by Christ has a purpose: Christ has set us free “for freedom.” He has liberated us in order that we may truly be free, because in order for us to fulfill our vocation to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and to love others as Christ has loved us, we must be free, since we can never love out of compulsion. At the same time, we have to realize that we can also misuse our freedom to enslave ourselves, by becoming addicts, for example, to drugs, or to pornography, or even to getting our own way all the time. That’s why St. Paul tells us, “So stand firm [in freedom] and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Christ has opened up the prison cell and led us out into the light, but now we need to use that great gift of freedom to continue to follow him more and more into the light rather than to return to the self-imposed darkness of the servitude of sin and egocentrism.

How to become and stay free

How do we remain free? How do with strengthen ourselves in freedom? Jesus told us in St. John’s Gospel: “If you keep my Word, then you will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). To stay free, we must live according to the Truth, the truth about right and wrong, the truth about who we are made in God’s image and likeness, the truth about our calling to a life of loving communion with Him and others. Freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, without the interference of anyone else. It’s not the power to pretend that we are God, determining good and evil, even deciding over life and death. Freedom, rather, is the capacity to act in accordance with the truth about who we are in God’s image and likeness. It’s the ability to live with virtue, the self-mastery that allows us to become whom God created us to be as images of him who is both love and truth.

This is something we see far more clearly in those situations in which people live without the freedom we can so often take for granted. In my work for the Holy See at the United Nations in New York, I encounter regularly the situation of people who live under oppressive regimes. What they hunger for most is the ability to worship God, for what we call religious freedom. Those Christians, for example, who need to live underground, who are in situations in which they’re jailed for professing their faith or who can be stoned for converting away from the dominant religion. They want to live in accordance with their conscience, with what they believe God is calling them to do in this sacred inner organ of sensitivity to God. Here in the United States, we’re now several days into the Fortnight for Freedom, the two-week period of intense prayer, fasting, study and public witness in which American Catholics are called to ponder about the meaning of religious freedom and act on our duty to be salt, light and leaven in helping other citizens to recognize the meaning of attacks on our religious freedom, attacks that in some places are forcing pharmacists to prescribe lethal drugs, religious sisters to pay for people’s abortions, parents to have to have their kindergarteners listen to stories promoting things contrary to the Gospel, and more. The importance of St. Paul’s words today, inspired by the Holy Spirit, cannot be overstated.

St. Paul tells us in today’s passage that the fundamental choice we have to make in life, the litmus test for whether we will strengthen and expand our freedom or diminish and lose it, is dependent on whether we choose to live by the Holy Spirit or live according to what he calls “the flesh,” which means living dominated by rather than controlling our lower instincts. The more we choose to live by God, by the truth he has revealed, by self-discipline and responsibility and care for others, the more free we will be. The more we abuse our freedom to live apart from God and his truth, the more we will voluntarily squander our freedom and became slaves. Some many in our culture are sadly confused about this. Some, we know, clamor that in the name of freedom, parents must have the ability to choose to end the lives of their own little children in the womb through abortion. Others say freedom means the ability to smoke as much marijuana as they want, or to be able to turn their back on their loved ones — their parents, their children, their spouses — or on immigrants, the poor and those in need. Other’s think it’s the ability to define themselves anyway they want — today I’m a man, tomorrow woman, today I’m white, tomorrow I’m black, no matter what the truth of one’s biology attests — as we’ve been seeing happen in our culture in which many are preferring to live in a make-believe unreality in which no one’s feelings are hurt rather than help people live in the truth. What so many fail to see is that such behavior contrary to the truth about things in one way or another enslaves them rather than liberates them and makes them happy. As St. Paul reminds us today, the purpose of freedom is not to enable self-indulgence, self-definition, and life according to the flesh, but rather for love and responsibility to live in accordance with the truth that Christ has revealed to us. This is the Gospel we’re called to live and proclaim, to set people free and make people happy.

Using our freedom to follow Jesus

This choice between living according to God or living according to the flesh is what the dramatic Gospel scene is about today. It puts into relief what are freedom is for and challenges us to see if we are truly being led by the Spirit.

More than 20 times in the Gospel, Jesus says the words, “Follow me!” Each of us has received that calling from Jesus. It is an appeal to our freedom. The biggest, most important decision of our life is to use our freedom to make a real commitment to follow Jesus along the path out of slavery, the path of real freedom and love, the path that leads to happiness, holiness and heaven, precisely the path he has charted for us and wants us to follow. We know that those who are the real heroes in life have used their freedom to follow Jesus on this path. That’s what 11 of the 12 apostles it. It’s what Mary Magdalene did. And that’s what the Blessed Virgin Mary did. We know that many others used their freedom to refuse to follow Jesus. We see this tragic decision in the Samaritans in today’s Gospel, who would not welcome Jesus at all into their town because he was preparing to go to Jerusalem (where he would die for their sins!). We see it in the many Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees who used their freedom to conspire to murder Jesus. We see it in Pontius Pilate and Herod who, instead of using their freedom to protect a man they knew was innocent, used it to have him crucified. We see it in the Rich Young Man, who when given a choice to grasp onto the hand of Jesus who wanted to lead him to perfection, instead chose to grasp on to his many material possessions. We see it in all those disciples of Jesus who, as soon as he revealed to them the mystery of the Eucharist, decided that the teaching was too hard to endure and abandoned him.

In the Gospel we have several examples about the use of freedom that should hit close to home. These were people who wanted to follow Jesus but who felt bound by something that they let prevent them from making the commitment to follow him fully. In their case, it was not sin that enslaved them, but good things that they had made idols that prevented them from following the one true God.

The first person told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus wanted him to be clear about the cost of discipleship: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was saying that anyone who decides to follow him needs to know that it’s not going to be a comfortable or easy life, but a life of self-sacrificial love and the embracing of a daily Cross. We don’t know what decision this man made, but the context implies that he preferred having a pillow than choosing to follow a pillowless Redeemer.

Next Jesus explicitly called a man to follow him but the person replied, “Let me first go and bury my father.” It’s important to note that there’s no indication that his father was dead or even about to die. What is more likely is that the man was a first-born son who in Jewish culture would be the one responsible for caring for his father in old age. Therefore, what this man was basically saying was, “Jesus, my father is more important than you and I’ll come to follow you in ten, twenty, thirty or more years when my father is no longer here.” Jesus’ reply, “Let the dead bury the dead” is an indication that anyone who doesn’t have God in the center is to some degree already dead and that to have life, we need to make the choice to follow Him who is the Way, Truth and Life. Jesus wasn’t telling this man to break the fourth commandment to honor his father and mother, but to keep the First Commandment — to love God above every other love — in order better to keep the Fourth.

A third person told the Lord that he would follow him, but he first wanted to say goodbye to everyone. It’s certainly not evil, like Elisha in today’s first reading, to want to say farewell to friends and family — as if he would never have had a chance to do it in the future! — but what this man was doing was conditioning his response, putting following Christ behind human considerations, and failing to recognize the unbelievable privilege of the invitation he had just received. That’s why Jesus gave him, and us, a crucially important principle: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus was calling him and all of us to set our hand to the plow and to look at what we’re gaining rather than what we’re giving up, to look at him and follow him along the path of freedom, faith and felicity, rather than peering backward toward yesterday’s treasures. He’s calling all of us to use our freedom to make him the true priority of our life.

Setting our hand to the flow and looking forward

And so today let’s respond to God’s help to make some commitments to put our hands to the plow and not look back, to follow him not half-heartedly but with our whole mind, heart, soul and strength, to stay with him not out of cold, bitter duty but out of trusting, cheerful love. Let’s make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in prayer without looking back, committing ourselves to give more time to him in prayer more than we devote to various diversions. Let’s make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ at the Mass without looking at the clock, to following him with all our mind and heart in the readings, to pouring ourselves into the prayers and the hymns. Let’s make the resolution to put our hands to the plow in this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy and follow Christ in forgiving those who have hurt us without looking to see if they have forgiven first. Let’s make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in caring for the poor without looking to see if anyone notices. Let’s make the commitment to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ by living according to the Holy Spirit and putting to death in us the life of the flesh, without looking to what others say. Let’s make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ to defend the truth without looking to see if it meets with other people’s approval. Let us, in short, make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in uniting our whole life with Him without looking back to our old way of doing things, without looking back to the yoke of slavery.

I give God thanks today in a special way, on the 17th anniversary of my ordination as a priest, for the help I received here at St. Michael’s, freely to put my hands to the plow and and to follow Christ along the path to the priesthood. The encouragement I received from Fathers Bailey, and Sullivan, and O’Malley and Mendicoa as a teenager, the help I received from Fathers Nee and Capone applying to the seminary and preparing for ordination, the encouragement I received from so many parishioners to give a free and wholehearted yes to God to follow him down the path of the vocation he gave me were all so important as I sought to act with full freedom on the plan he had for me within the vocation all of us have received to follow Jesus wherever he leads. I am always filled with gratitude for the culture of faith, of the free, total and happy response to God, that I learned here at St. Michael’s, and I pray that St. Michael’s, like every parish, will never cease to be such a school of freedom, to help everyone learn the purpose of freedom to follow God.

The strength to persevere 

Today Christ looks on us with love and calls us to follow him and joining our hands to his in plowing the fields for a harvest. He calls us to use our freedom wisely to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, and it is here that the Holy Spirit has led us, so that we might behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and liberates us from sin and death. Rather than gratifying the desires of the flesh, we come near to be nourished by Jesus’ flesh and blood, which strengthen us to make a total commitment to him who here gives himself totally to us. As Jesus calls us anew to follow him now, let’s do so with free, committed, total love and cheerfulness. Doing so is the most important decision we’ll ever make and the path to solidify, secure and expand our freedom.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 1 KGS 19:16B, 19-21

The LORD said to Elijah:
“You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah,
as prophet to succeed you.”Elijah set out and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat,
as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen;
he was following the twelfth.
Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.
Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said,
“Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,
and I will follow you.”
Elijah answered, “Go back!
Have I done anything to you?”
Elisha left him, and taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them;
he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh,
and gave it to his people to eat.
Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11

R. (cf. 5a) You are my inheritance, O Lord.
Keep me, O God, for in you I take refuge;
I say to the LORD, “My Lord are you.
O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.”
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
I bless the LORD who counsels me;
even in the night my heart exhorts me.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.

Reading 2 GAL 5:1, 13-18

Brothers and sisters:
For freedom Christ set us free;
so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.
But do not use this freedom
as an opportunity for the flesh;
rather, serve one another through love.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,
namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.

I say, then: live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Alleluia 1 SM 3:9; JN 6:68C

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Speak, Lord, your servant is listening;
you have the words of everlasting life.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel LK 9:51-62

When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,
and he sent messengers ahead of him.
On the way they entered a Samaritan village
to prepare for his reception there,
but they would not welcome him
because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.
When the disciples James and John saw this they asked,
“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven
to consume them?”
Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.
As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”And to another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

the-man-at-the-plough